[An edited version of this post appeared today in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]
I recently learned that our school, Hoover Elementary, was using a guidance curriculum designed for autistic children in all of its third- and fourth-grade classrooms. When I asked why, I was told that the kids weren’t “taking turns speaking” or “being respectful of others.” Eventually, after some parents (including me) complained about its content, the school district decided to discontinue that curriculum outside special education classrooms. I’m afraid, though, that the incident raises larger concerns about how our school system conceives of education.
Some background: Autism is a brain disorder that causes affected kids to have trouble communicating and interacting with other people. Children with autism often have a hard time participating in ordinary conversation, and struggle with many of the social skills that come naturally to most people -- for example, using someone’s facial expressions and tone of voice as cues to what that person is thinking or feeling.
As a result, many treatments for autism focus on developing interactive skills. One such program is Social Thinking, a treatment developed specifically for kids with autism or other social learning disabilities. Social Thinking’s goal is to train kids to discern and conform to the social expectations of the people around them. For example, it teaches the kids to recognize how other people feel when you behave in the way they expect, as opposed to when you behave in a way that is “surprising.” “The motivation for this learning,” the program’s creator explains, “comes from the desire to be socially validated (socially included) by others.”
It is easy to see how such an approach could be valuable for a child who has a neurological disorder that makes social interaction hard. Using it in entire classrooms of neurotypical children just to get the kids to “behave,” however, raises serious concerns.
First, the use of the program may be a sign that there are some kids on the autism spectrum who need individual attention -- and are legally entitled to it -- but aren’t getting it. Applying this treatment wholesale to an entire classroom is no substitute for individualized treatment.
Second, by teaching kids to comply with the expectations of others, the program encourages an unthinking, conformist approach to good behavior. In that way, unfortunately, it is consistent with the district’s general approach to behavior issues. Rather than try to get the kids thinking and reasoning about how they choose to treat other people or about their own developing moral compasses, our school district repeatedly chooses to emphasize unthinking obedience and compliance with rules. Schools throughout Iowa City, for example, now distribute reward “tickets” for good behavior -- which usually means being quiet and obedient -- leading to prize drawings for well-behaved kids. Such a program encourages kids to be good for selfish purposes, and not to think about the reasons behind the rules and expectations. (My objections to the program are here.) Similarly, our district’s “character education” program defines traits like honesty, courage, respect, and responsibility largely in terms of obedience and compliance with school rules.
Emphasizing unthinking conformity is particularly inappropriate in a guidance curriculum. The last thing a guidance curriculum should do is teach kids to conform to the expectations of their social group. Shouldn’t we want to teach exactly the opposite lesson -- that you should develop your own sense of right and wrong, that you should be true to your values even in the face of peer pressure, that it’s okay to be different from what people expect you to be, that everyone is unique, that it takes all kinds to make a world?
Unfortunately, our district’s use of these programs is part of a larger trend. Under increasing pressure to raise their students’ standardized test scores, schools have resorted to many measures that are arguably bad for the kids, such as assigning greater amounts of homework and at increasingly younger ages, introducing advanced concepts earlier, and cutting back on the time devoted to recess, lunch, and subjects that aren’t tested, like art and music. In their pursuit of additional minutes of “on task” time, schools have also begun to emphasize -- to the point of obsessing over -- rigid rules about “good behavior,” and have become less and less tolerant of kids acting like kids.
The resulting overemphasis on obedience and on unquestioning compliance with rules necessarily undermines any emphasis on inquiry and thought, which are the values all those rules are supposed to serve. If we hope to help kids become intelligent, autonomous adults, we shouldn’t be satisfied with getting them to behave out of a desire to win a prize, or with sharpening their skill at pleasing the people around them. We should help them become their own masters and think for themselves -- even if that means they might occasionally do something unpopular or “surprising.” Teaching the kids to behave doesn’t have to trump core educational values.
Follow up post here.